In the first article of a four-part briefing we look at how companies are ignoring the alarming decline in bee populations at their peril
When a small city in South Carolina called Summerville (nicknamed “Flowertown”) aerial-sprayed a pesticide called Naled due to fear of Zika-carrying mosquitos and killed millions of local honey bees in August, bee activists declared it another “bee-pocalypse’ – a direct demonstration of how harmful chemical controls can be to important pollinators.
“America’s bees are dying in droves,” warned National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) president Rhea Suh in an email to members. Big bee deaths are also an economic loss, as honeybees provide essential pollinator services to the US valued at between $10bn and $15bn annually.
Yet there is a more complex story behind the “bee-pocalypse” headlines, and it’s not just about honey bees, which are one of about 20,000 bee species. The danger is to all pollinators, with honeybees being a sympathetic focal point.
More important than public awareness is that more companies understand the pollinator predicament, and that those with a direct interest in pollinator protection take action. Commentators warn that if industrial agriculture continues its chemically dependent trajectory it may not be enough to prevent “pollinator-pocalypse”.
According to a USDA-funded study US beekeepers lost 44% of their honeybee colonies in the year to this April. As much human food, especially in the fruit and vegetable aisle, depends on pollinators, that loss seems incredibly scary.
But honeybees, because of their economic importance, are constantly replenished by commercial beekeepers, either through splitting healthy hives or by purchasing. In fact, the number of honeybee colonies has stayed relatively steady in the US, at about 2.5 million colonies over the past 20 years, and 2015’s numbers were even a little higher, at 2.66 million colonies.
The same can not be said of other pollinators, which a review study headed by Romina Rader of the University of New England estimated could be as much as 39% of pollination services.
Tony Landretti, marketing and sustainability director for Rice’s Clover Honey, a distributor of raw honey based in Greeley, Colorado, is sanguine about honey bees’ future, even though bees are obviously a vital part of the company’s supply chain.
“I think professional beekeepers are doing as much as they can to manage their colonies,” he says. Overall bee species health is more worrying, however. “There are a number of different factors in bee health,” Landretti continues. “It isn’t only the environmental threat, that’s just one factor: it’s diseases, the varroa mite [a parasitic pest], it’s moving the hives for pollination and at times some poor beekeeping practices. There isn’t anyone able to put their finger on just one thing.
In a new book The Business of Bees, edited by Jill and Barry Atkins, multiple authors look at the bee decline and its impacts on business. Andrea Romi and Scott Longing were surprised to discover that amongst US S&P 100 companies, nearly none disclosed information on the risks from ongoing pollinator decline.
This general lack among companies is all the more concerning in light of the significant business risk losing pollinators entails. Globally, pollination services are thought to be worth at least €153bn (£133bn), according to a French-German agricultural research team. Concurrently, the UN’s Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services completed an assessment this year that concluded that pesticides and a number of other manmade problems are causing massive pollinator – bees, bats, butterflies, birds – die-off.
A recent study published in the journal PeerJ found that corporate industrial agriculture is the top risk to pollinators and offers one of the best opportunities to protect pollinators in the future. But does large-scale agriculture realise this responsibility?
Before 2006, when the honeybee phenomenon known as colony collapse disorder was first noted, with bigger than normal honeybee hive die-off, most companies had little reason to think of bee health as a material issue.
When companies did start taking notice of the threats to bee and other pollinator health, they did respond, but simplistically and locally rather than strategically. In other words, companies with an interest in bees have planted flowers and made honeybee habitats.
UK grocery conglomerate J Sainsbury, for example, has done a remarkable job at propagating “bee hotels” – large structures hanging on the sides of buildings that allow solitary bees to find food and a safe haven for raising their young. Sainsbury hired a beekeeper, Robin Dean, in 2010, who has placed and maintains the hotels at Sainsbury grocery store locations. Emily Scott, a Sainsbury corporate responsibility and sustainability manager, says 424 hotels have been installed, 249 at stores and the rest at company suppliers.
The most successful aspect of the bee hotels, Scott says, is the way it has engaged customers and employees. “Our colleagues have embraced the idea and wanted to know more about solitary bees versus honey bees – we keep the subject live though blogs and updates.”
Burt’s Bees has also done a fantastic job at propagating bee forage. In the spring Burt’s ran a successful marketing campaign, promising to plant 1 billion wildflowers with the “Bring Back the Bees” programme through customer lip-balm purchases and use of a social media hashtag.
“We’ve actually exceeded this goal,” says Patrice Sherman, Burt’s Bees global public relations manager. “To date, we’ve supported 20 farms and planted well over one billion seeds… more than 6,000 acres of agriculture.”
Even French cosmetics company Guerlain, one of the brands of the huge multinational LMVH, has a long-term bee protection initiative especially dedicated to the black bee native to the island of Ouessant (Ushant). That black bee produces a wildflower honey critical for Guerlain’s $200-per-ounce Abeille Royale night cream and a range of other luxe cosmetics. Guerlain has a 10-year partnership with the Ouessant Black Bee Conservation Association that is intended to safeguard the island’s entire ecosystem and the bees along with it. Guerlain’s approach is laudable, yet limited to a very small geographical area.
Warren Bader is CEO of Plan Bee Ltd., a consultancy in Motherwell, Scotland that helps companies with its “fully managed beehive services”. Bader is doing the essential work of educating companies on pollinator plight.
“I don’t think the average person realises the implications of not having pollinators, and it’s just too much negativity for them,” Bader says. He’s had good luck with spelling it out for companies, he says. “When I have that first meeting and show them the ramifications, that’s when the penny drops.” Plan Bee works with amenable companies to custom-design community engagement projects, like the eight honey bee hives the company located at the grounds of the cereal maker Kellogg’s head office in Manchester.
“Is what we’re doing enough? The short answer is ‘No, it isn’t,’” he says. Unfortunately, companies seem to be just starting to realise the need for a systematic and collaborative effort at pollinator protection.
Groups such as the NGO Pollinator Partnership, based in San Francisco, have strived to create an ecosystem approach to protection.
But they have nowhere near the resources and reach of agrochemical companies such as Syngenta and the Bayer/Monsanto conglomerate, which are the heart of the problem through the pesticides they sell and the industrial agricultural system that depends on them.
Bayer and Syngenta are two of the world’s top manufacturers of neonicotinoid pesticides, and though “neonics” aren’t the only chemical pesticide contributing to bee and pollinator stress, they are widely used, especially in the US.
Both Bayer and Syngenta do have long-standing initiatives to help bees. Syngenta has run Operation Pollinator for 15 years and has a stretch goal to “enhance” diversity on 15 million acres of land by 2020. Bayer, through its Feed A Bee programme and partnerships, has planted 150 million flowers, and through its Healthy Hives 2020 initiative is funding programmes for bee nutrition, varroa mite management and “smart hive” management.
“Bayer has been involved in bee health for nearly 30 years, first working with beekeepers and [then] to help combat the devastating varroa mite,” said spokesperson Jeffrey Daniels. “Recent initiatives have focused on bringing partners together to address the many factors that affect bee health.”
But the one factor that neither Syngenta nor Bayer addresses head on is that less use of pesticides would directly benefit all pollinators – but not the companies’ bottom line.
The spread of integrated pest management (IPM), which aims to educate farmers on using biological and cultural controls (such as selected varieties for geographies or tilling methods) in combination with chemical controls for pests may be the best pollinator protection in our era of industrial agriculture, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency and others.
Whether all the players in pollinator protection can come together to spread education on IPM swiftly and effectively remains to be seen. “In our economy, how to get corporations to look strategically at this issue with their quarterly earnings and timelines isn’t easy,” says Ron Miksha, a beekeeper and writer of the BadBeekeeping blog.
Miksha says the focus on honeybees, which will continue to be renewed because of their economic value, may be obscuring the issue of pollinator health. Similar to the unexpected negative effects of climate change, the effect of pollinators becoming extinct hasn’t been thoroughly anticipated. Miksha says a next step may be pre-competitive initiatives that have corporations and governments figuring out the fastest way to build better biodiversity for pollinators.
“Beekeepers would be happiest if chemicals were used more safely and sparingly and with less impact on biodiversity,” Miksha says. “And chemical companies might take a larger role in ensuring the average farmer has better education and more awareness of the issues. But there’s also more work to be done at the government level – more research at new controls and more directed incentives for improving biodiversity.”
Help at hand for bee farmers
One of the most promising tools that soon will be ready for use at the farm level is a honeybee colony simulator computer programme called BEEHAVE.
What makes the BEEHAVE simulator useful, according to one of its developers Matthias Becher, is that it can create models that show the effects to hives of the different stresses honeybees face, from the varroa mite to beekeeping practices and pesticide sprays. It is open source and free to download from the website.
While BEEHAVE can’t (yet) help non-hive bee species, Syngenta, Bayer, and the European Food Safety Authority have used BEEHAVE for risk assessment. Becher, a research fellow at the University of Exeter, says he thinks it has real promise.
“At the moment we are developing a more advanced pesticide module for BEEHAVE and we have plans to release a special version for farmers, which would allow them to load a map of their farm into the model so that it could simulate what effect their farming practices have on the bees.”
bees NRDC biodiversity agriculture IPM